EU President Horse-Trading

If you haven’t yet read Nicolas Nagle’s WPR Briefing on the EU president sweepstakes, it’s a good jumping-off point for understanding the debate currently taking place here in Europe in the runup to the Treaty of Lisbon taking effect. Up til now, the leading candidate, Tony Blair, had kept his interest in the job discreetly implied, even if it was universally understood. But now it looks as if Jean-Claude Juncker’s official declaration of interest as well as some recent pointed personal attacks have smoked Blair out, or at least enough to mobilize his proxies to ratchet up the whisper campaign.

With regard to the essential choice faced by the EU and the future president, which Nagle portrayed as that between a strong leader and a chairman-like manager, “Blair’s friends” are making it known that he’s interested in the job, so long as it’s “big enough.” I don’t think anyone expected Blair to fill a role that amounted to making sure all the place settings are properly filled out at the EU heads of state summits. But given that a lot of the resistance to Blair has to do with his handling of the Iraq war — that is, his determination to boldly lead in the face of strong popular opposition — I’m not sure such an “all or nothing” approach helps his chances much.

The thing is, though, there’s also the question of the political horse trading that goes into all EU positions. And from that perspective, Blair makes for a very useful candidate, for reasons that are summed up so well by a French diplomat (speaking with Jean Quatremer) that it’s worth quoting the entire thing:

Let’s be scientific: For the three pincipal positions [note: EU Council President, EU Commission President and EU Foreign Minister], we need two figures from the Right and one from the Left [note: because of the political makeup of the European Parliament], two men and one women, one from the South, one from the North, and one from the East. Greece is out because of Turkey, Denmark because of NATO, and Carl Bildt and Jean-Claude Junker are dead. With Barroso [as president of the EU Commission], that makes a figure from the Right and the South. So we’re looking for a woman and a man, one from the Left and the other from the Right, and preferably from the North and the East. Blair was convenient: from the Left and the North. That led us to Ursula Plassnik, the Austrian foreign minister, from the Right and a woman[for EU foreign minister]. Things get more complicated if it isn’t Blair: Balkenende? Verhofstad? And where do we find a woman from the Left and the East? . . . All of which is to say that the process is going to be long, entertaining and full of surprises. (Translated from the French.)

This is sort of the EU equivalent of a presidential candidate picking a vice-presidential running-mate. And as sometimes happens Stateside, there is currently a dearth of A-list European politicians that are out of office (i.e., past their domestic prime), or else from a small enough country that they could resign from office to take the EU post.

All of that said, I have a suspicion that even once the process is over, the actual evolution of the EU presidency is going to be “long, entertaining and full of surprises.” Think of some of the U.S. Supreme Court justices who rule very differently than anticipated. Circumstances and character can sometimes conspire to turn a Harry Truman into, well, a Harry Truman.

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